Authors: Sara Shepard
âI don't know.' Claire flicked her ashes. An ember landed on her coat and she brushed it off. âWho knows why anyone does anything? Do you know why your mom left?'
âMy mom's on a trip,' I said fast.
Claire scoffed. âThen why did she resign from her job?'
I stared at her.
âThat's why my mom initially came to see your dad. She called her old boss at Mandrake & Hester, to see if he could get her back her old job. And her boss goes, âDid you hear about Meredith? She resigned. She didn't even leave a forwarding number.'
I took an elephant-like step back.
Claire lowered her shoulders, a look of realization passing over her face. âYour father didn't tell you this?'
I concentrated hard on the yellow stitches running down the legs of Claire's jeans. Such petite little Vs, for such a wide swathe of fabric.
Claire let out a breath. Her face softened even more. It reminded me of the expression she had two years ago, when she'd come upon me on the bus and realized she'd walked right by without noticing I was there. âGod, Summer. I'm so sorry. But we can talk about this together. Aboutâ¦the stuff that's happening to both of us. We need each other.'
I thought of the second-to-last day before my mother left. I'd gotten up in the middle of the night and found her sitting in the living room, staring at the bare Christmas tree she and my father had picked out that morning. She had a nervous
look on her face, almost as if she was going to throw up. âMom?' I said weakly.
She turned to me slowly and slumped. âWhat are you doing awake?'
I just couldn't hold it in any longer. Tears started rolling down my face. It wasn't hard to sense something was going on with her. Admitting it, however, was something else entirely.
âWhat's happening?' I asked. âWhat's wrong?'
My mother looked exasperated. âGo back to bed, Summer.'
âCan't I help?' My voice was so squeaky, so pathetic. âCan't you tell me?'
âJust go back to bed. Please.' She didn't get up to touch me or guide me back or give me a hug. She just sat there, wringing her hands. Two days later she was gone.
It was all there, on the surface, waiting. But I stopped it before it could escape out of me. âShe's away on a trip,' I said to Claire. âShe'll be back.'
A long beat passed. The wind picked up, making the snow swirl. âOh,' Claire said softly. âOkay.' She waited a few more moments, then turned and started walking into the center of the great lawn. Halfway across, she stopped and looked over her shoulder, pausing, maybe giving me another opportunity to say what she knew I needed to say. I stared at a fixed point on the ground, an ember from Claire's cigarette.
When I finally lifted my head, Claire was all the way across the lawn, heading for the snow-dusted trees. The ache inside me was cruel and precise. I stood there for a while, my toes stiffening with cold. The church bell near Grand Army Plaza bonged out the hour. There was nothing to do but walk back. I creaked through the school gate and padded down the silent halls. The classrooms were full and preoccupied. I passed by my biology classroom; the new sub, the one that had taken over for Mr Rice, was showing
a filmstrip. After Mr Rice had been asked to leave, it came out that the principal had had his eye on him for a while-there had been reports that Mr Rice had acted strangely in his other classes, too. The principal assured us that none of what Mr Rice taught us that last day-the invisible tethers of DNA, the certitude of science-was true. But I didn't want to believe that. Wherever my mother was-walking on a sun-dappled beach, riding a street car in San Francisco, scampering down a rainy street in London-the tether around her was a literal one, a rip cord. Any minute now, it would stretch taut, and she'd snap back to us.
After school that day, I went home and stared at the buildings across the water for a while, thinking. Then, I sat down at my father's cluttered mahogany desk and wrote Mr Rice a letter. I said I was sorry he had to leave our school, that I hoped he was all right. I wrote that I wanted to know a little more about those magical, unbreakable bonds of DNA he'd spoken about. How exactly did they hold family members together? I was looking for a little more scientific evidence to support this. If he could respond with articles, books, theories, I would be greatly appreciative.
At the bottom of the page, I signed the letter,
Yours in Genetics, Summer Davis
. When my father came home from a rare day at the lab, he noticed the envelope with Mr Rice's name on it but no address. I'd told him a little about Mr Rice-just his theory, not what I believed. Without asking any questions, as if my father sensed something big in me had changed, he picked up the envelope and sealed it with a stamp. He knew the woman in charge of substitute teachers at Peninsula, he said. If I wanted, we could mail the letter to her-she'd know Mr Rice's forwarding address.
It didn't seem possible that my father could know such a person-he wasn't involved with the school and hardly knew
anyone outside of people he associated with at the lab. But I chose to believe this, too.
I watched as my father wrote out the woman's address on the envelope. I watched his head disappear down our apartment building's stairs, and I ran to the window and watched his head reappear on the street below. It was comforting to conjure up this image of him later, after he'd become so very different, so very damaged. I tried to remember him as he was right then, walking to that mailbox, protective and productive and strong.
That winter, I would stand in front of Two World Trade and look for you. I watched people go in and out of the revolving doors, thinking you'd be among them. When you weren't, I went down to the underground mall and brushed through the shoe stores, the Gap, Duane Reade. I kept thinking I'd find you among the ribbed V-neck sweaters, the first-aid supplies.
They've asked me to pinpoint pivotal times where things began to really change for me, to reconstruct my life as best I can. I remember we were at a party at the Boathouse in Central Park-a friend of yours from your new job had graduated from business school. I had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and when I was on my way back, I saw you sitting at the table, laughing, drinking, eating cold shrimp with a dainty little fork. And I suddenly realized-it didn't matter I was gone. Maybe it was better. So I started just to walk down the park drive. It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon in May, close to the anniversary.
I stopped when I got to the zoo. Outside the gates, there was a man selling balloons in the shapes of animals. A group of kids ran for the turnstiles, sneakers squeaking. They were
so, so young. I sat down on a bench, listening to their high, happy voices, and all the things I vowed so long ago not to think about suddenly throbbed inside of me, way too present. The flashing blue lights. The way Mark looked at me when I told the EMT what I knew. All those years later, and I still felt every ounce of his shock.
And then, suddenly, there you were. You were standing above me, hands on hips.
âWhat are you doing?' you asked. âI've been looking all over for you.'
âI went for a walk,' I said.
âWhy?' Your face was so red.
I gestured to the zoo's cheerful gate. âRemember when we took Summer and Steven here?'
âYes.' You said it very slowly, cautiously, as if I'd told a joke and you were waiting for the punch line.
âDo you think all parents understand how great it is for kids to see animals?' I asked. âI've been sitting here, watching, and every kid who has gone in is so happy. All parents understand this, right? All kids get to go to zoos?'
You turned your wedding ring around on your finger. âI thought you were sick. I even had Paul go into the bathroom and make sure.'
We went back to the party and explained that I'd run into an old friend and walked a ways up with him toward the reservoir. Your friends nodded and smiled and drank their drinks. The rest of the lunch, you had a hand on your bare knee, and you kept squeezing, squeezing. When you took it away once, I could see the fermata-shaped nail indentations in your skin.
After that, similar episodes came more frequently. I wasn't where I said I would be. I wasn't as dependable, wasn't as cogent, couldn't carry a conversation, missed days of work, spaced out for hours. Once, you caught me watching a
Three Stooges marathon when I was supposed to be getting ready for a party. Another time you caught me on the Promenade, coaxing a baby squirrel toward my lap with a spoonful of peanut butter. I'd said I was going to the lab that day. âHave you been tricking me?' you asked. âHave you always been this kind of person, but just hid it all this time?'
âIt's hard to explain,' I said.
âTry,' you said.
But it was about the same things, the things I'd already told you. And it was about the things I could only halfway tell-I was so afraid to tell it all. But maybe I should have; maybe I owed it to you. And maybe that's why I waited for you in front of your old office building, that winter after you left-so I could come clean. Or maybe I wouldn't have said anything, if I'd seen you. Maybe it would've been enough to know that you were still here, near us, close.
This is probably the part where I should tell you how I really feel. That I think what you did was terrible, and that you ruined lives, and that I'll never forgive you. But there's room in me to forgive, I think. Maybe, in some ways, I saw it coming. Maybe, in some ways, I understand.
âDo we have everything?' I asked.
My father and I were standing in the doorway of our apartment, bags slung over our shoulders, the wheels of the suitcase caught on the lip between the door and the hall. Steven had already gone down the street to look out for the car service.
We shut the door and locked all the locks. My father stooped, jiggling the handles to make sure they were truly secure. We heard the shouting on Montague Terrace before we pushed our way out of the heavy wooden brownstone door and clomped down the building's front steps. The bags Steven had brought downstairs were waiting patiently at the curb next to an old diesel Mercedes, but Steven was standing in the middle of the street, his hands on his hips, glaring at Renee Klinefelter, our forty-something neighbor down the block. Renee was in her uniform, jeans cut off at the knees and a slightly-too-small black t-shirt that stretched tight over her paunchy stomach. As usual, her two grumpy-faced pugs flanked her, one on each side.
âDon't pull that amnesty stuff on me,' Steven was shouting.
âThat bomb could have decimated one of our most vulnerable buildings. He should've been shot on the spot.'
âSo what do you suggest we do?' Renee shouted back, spitting a little. âDeport everyone? Take away political asylum as a whole?'
âIf that's what it takes.'
âAnd some people who have it like to blow things up.' Steven was moving closer and closer to Renee's face. âAnd do you realize you're arguing
terrorism? You're arguing
people with those ideals toâ¦to
here and do this to us when we aren't expecting it?'
He wheeled around, glaring pointedly at Iqbal, who owned the M&J deli down the block. Iqbal had innocently walked into the street to check on the fresh flowers he sold, but when he realized Steven was near, he inched back inside. Steven had gone off on Iqbal a month or so ago-
country do this. How does that make you feel?
Iqbal dealt with it quietly, neither calling the cops nor barring Steven from the store-although maybe he should have. During Desert Storm, there were several yellow ribbons affixed to Iqbal's register. He still slipped me loose candy he kept in the plastic bins above the register, barrel-shaped Tootsie Rolls and mini York Peppermint Patties, whenever I went in there to buy a Coke.
âIf that van would've been a little closer to the concrete foundation in the basement, both buildings would've collapsed,' Steven yelled to Renee. âDo you even realize that?'
âOf course I realize that!' Renee shouted. âBut it doesn't mean we should persecute everyone!'
âYou should do something,' I murmured to my father, who, as usual, had halted, paralyzed, on the curb. He cradled his right hand in his left, running his fingers over the scar on
his right palm he'd gotten a few months ago from the broken snow globe. The deep cut had healed, but he often thoughtfully traced the scar over and over, maybe finding the motion soothing, maybe remembering what happened. I never wanted to ask. A curious, passive crowd had gathered to watch Steven and Renee. People were stepping out of their buildings, heads tilted toward the noise, and passersby had paused, leaning against railings, reining in their dogs, trying to understand what was transpiring.
I moved out to the street and pulled Steven's arm. He wrenched it away without even looking at me. Renee leaned over like a bull ready to charge. My father, finally, pushed around me. âWe have to go,' he said in Steven's ear. âYou've made your point.'
We both managed to pull Steven backwards, returning to our pile of luggage at the curb. Luckily, the car service rolled up then, and I waved it over. We threw our suitcases in the trunk fast, piling them on top of empty water bottles, frayed straps to secure luggage, and a little box that looked either like a tool kit or a small suitcase for a gun. Steven craned his neck to get a look at the driver, a pale man with high cheekbones. When he greeted us, he had a Staten Island accent. Visibly relieved, Steven got in.
As we pulled away, Renee remained in the middle of the street, her stance solid and righteous. A man I didn't recognize approached her, and Renee's mouth started moving fast. It wasn't hard to figure out what she was saying.
Steven used to be such a nice boy, so quiet
And then all that happened, with the mother. What a pity.
Steven ran his hand over his hair, which he'd recently taken my father's beard clippers to. It was so short, I could see his skull in spots, pinkish and bumpy. âShe started it,' he muttered.
âIt doesn't matter who started it,' my father countered wearily.
The car took the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge. There were the mammoth Lower Manhattan buildings from a different angle than how we saw them from our apartment. Looming atop the Municipal Building was the giant Civic Fame statue, a bronze woman holding a shield, a bunch of leaves, and a crown. The World Trade towers jutted up like two prongs of an electrical plug. Out of habit, my eyes drifted to the North tower-last February, terrorists drove the truck into its underground parking garage and set off a bomb. Steven knew every detail of the incident: the bomb was made of urea pellets, bottled hydrogen and various other things. It was supposed to go up the ventilation shafts and suffocate everyone working there. Officials found bombbuilding plans in one of the terrorist's suitcases when he entered the country, but he claimed political asylum so they couldn't arrest him on the spot. Because of that loophole, 1,042 people had been injured, and six people had died. The
New York Times
listed the names of the dead, but not all those who had been hurt. Every day, when the paper came, Steven leafed through it, maybe checking, though he never explained.
Since then, whenever he wasn't doing his NYU coursework, Steven read about airplane hijackings, bus attacks, and suicide bombings, most of which take place in far-flung countries like Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Israel. But Steven thought they could happen here, too. We could be walking down the street, he hypothesized, and
No more street. No more us. There was nothing we could do to control it.
Our car reached the highest point of the bridge. I eyeballed twenty-two flights from the top of the North tower. The entire floor was dark.
My father jiggled his legs up and down as we descended off the bridge and turned onto the looping road to the FDR. âAre you all right?' I asked.
âAre you sure you're okay to drive?' We were headed for a car rental agency in the Village.
âI could drive,' I volunteered.
âYou don't know how to drive,' Steven snapped.
âNeither do you.'
âI'll drive,' my father interrupted. âI'm the one who knows how to get there.'
He looked longingly over his shoulder for a moment, back toward Brooklyn, pulling in his bottom lip until it vanished.
âIt's only three days,' I said in his ear. He nodded quietly, as if this were the vitamin he'd been looking for, as though these few, simple words had made everything better.
Later, my father became talkative. âWe couldn't get that fishhook out of Petey's foot, so we had to take him to the emergency room!'
There was a pause. He swiveled his head around at me, taking his hands off the steering wheel. I realized I was supposed to be paying attention.
âThat's funny,' I sputtered.
My father frowned. âIt's not funny, Summer. Petey's dad's car didn't go much above forty-five. It took us over an hour to get to the hospital.'
We passed a truck stop. McDonald's, Arby's, Dairy Queen. We passed a field of cows and then a field of horses. âThis is the real Pennsylvania,' my father yelled, his voice diffused through the open window. His accent had changed between Brooklyn and here, less than a six-hour drive. âI bet you don't remember this, huh Summer?'
âNot really.' We passed a red-painted barn. Someone had spray-painted
on the side of it
There was a big drip line from the base of the
to the waist-high grass.
I composed in my head.
Check this out!
I could send her a photo of the barn. Perhaps she'd find it-what's the phrase she always used?-
We passed what I guessed was the equivalent of a 7-Eleven. It was called Unimart, sort of like unibrow. There was a placard out front; faded, plastic interchangeable letters read, L
âIt's so funny, being here,' my father said. âI feel like I know every tree personally.'
He put on the rental station wagon's turn signal, and we pulled down a street paralleling a river. To our right were closedup shops, an empty diner called Mister Donut, a crumbling church with
on the marquee, a Knights of Columbus.
Beyond an industrial-looking, algae-green bridge was a hill lined with the kinds of trees I used to draw when I was little: long, narrow triangles, with tiny sticks as the trunks.
My father pointed to the hill. âWe used to pitch our Christmas trees over that.' He swung his finger toward the steel bridge. âAnd that's where that movie was shot.'
âI don't know. Theâ¦the movie. The one withâ¦with the ghost in it. I can't remember the name. Didn't we go to see it?'
He nodded toward a ramshackle house across the hill. âThat's where the Crosses live. We used to sneak over and jump on his trampoline. Once, he came out with a rifle and shot at us.'
âDid he have any kids?' I asked.
âNope. Hated kids.'
âThen what was he doing with a trampoline?'
My father paused, then slapped the steering wheel. âYou know, I have no idea. Maybe he was in the circus?'
Dear Claire. Guess what my dad had for lunch today? Scrapple. Wanna know what it is? Pig-shoulder pudding.
Suddenly, my father pulled over. âStop,' he said. âCome here.'
At first, I thought he was talking to me. But he was gazing at a wet, dazed-looking dog on the riverbank. It wasn't wearing a collar and had a big piece of fur missing from its side.
Other cars swished past, uninterested. Even here, I worried about them looking. My father turned the car off and stepped out. I shifted, uncomfortable. âDadâ¦'
He held up his hand. âI just want to see if I know her.'
âHow could you
âAll the dogs here, they mate with one another. Chances are I'll know her.'
Steven, who'd been sleeping against the front passengerside window, rubbed his eyes and stretched. âWhere are we?'
âWe're here,' I whispered. âI think.'
Steven looked around. The dead Mister Donut, a gas station that looked like it had weathered a recent dust storm. Two boys rolled out from behind a pick-up truck, carrying sixty-four-ounce cups of soda. They both had spiky blond hair and gapped, yellow teeth.
My father found the thin red leash and the packet of liver treats he always kept in his knapsack. When he opened the car door, the heat wrapped around us like mummification bandages.
Prepare for record temperatures this week
, the weather reporters had been declaring the whole drive. We'd been able to keep the signal for NPR for a while, but in the western part of the state we'd found nothing but country stations, which my father detested more than Lite FM. He had a whole stack of Jazz CDs to muddle him-and us, by default-through.
My father walked carefully toward the dog. It glanced at him out of the corner of its eye, the pink edge of its tongue darting in and out of its mouth. When my dad reached out,
the dog ducked away. âCome here,' my father whispered. âIt's okay.' He crouched and put the treat on the ground. The dog sniffed the air. When my father made a sudden move, the dog backed away again. It was a dance until the dog ate the treat, trusted my dad enough to come close, and my dad placed his hand on the scruff of the dog's neck. The dog flailed, but my father put one hand on its neck and the other on its belly and it began to calm down. He looped the leash around its neck, walked it to our car and stuffed it in the very back of the station wagon, next to our luggage.
Before he shut the hatchback, my father peered carefully into the dog's face. âDo you know it?' I called.
âYep, I know her,' he answered. âI know her
anyway. Or her grandparents. Or, I guess it would be greatgrandparents. But whatever. She's a Smitty dog.'
I was afraid to ask what a Smitty dog was, for fear it would launch another tale about roadkill or throwing a manhole cover through a car window or sledding down the hill on cardboard boxes, because no one could find the sleds. That was all my father had been talking about the whole second half of this drive.
The dog curled into a ball, whimpering. The car smelled suddenly like wet fur and the chemical that dogs give out when they are afraid. Steven stretched, his t-shirt taut against his chest. âAre we going to keep her?'
My father didn't answer, but I knew what the answer was: of course we were going to keep her. We had three other dogs in a Brooklyn kennel: Fiona, an Irish terrier, Wesley, a cock-eared Doberman my father had coaxed to him just like he had with this Smitty dog, and Skip, a Beagle who had shown up at our stoop a few months ago just as we were walking out the door, as if it knew we were the people dogs came to when they had nowhere else to go. When my mother
left, the apartment was too big for three of us. Now, whenever I entered a room, a dog was there. Whenever I used the bathroom, I found a dog sitting on the bathmat, drooling. If I opened the door to go into our building's hall, a dog tried to come. For a while, we tried to keep things nice, but with three dogs, it was hard. Finally, we just stopped trying altogether.